[Please note: Due to the presence of someone important to me in a politically sensitive part of the world, the text of what follows is subtly different from the sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday. I am happy to send the original to anyone who asks for a hard copy. I hope readers will understand].
Once when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?’ He replied, ‘Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped, and he said to him, ‘What do you command your servant, my lord?’ The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.’ And Joshua did so.
What does God really care about? Is it not the well-being of children? In Matthew 18 Jesus says these words, ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.'
What else does God really care about? Is it not about justice and righteousness? Proverbs 6 includes these words, 'There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.
But then we can start to get a little more controversial. What makes God angry enough to wage war? Now we're asking the really serious question, because as we remember and honour those who gave their lives to keep the freedom of this country, and set free those countries being oppressed by a foreign force, we sometimes take comfort that in doing so we, we were carrying out the will of God; that God was on our side because we were fighting the oppressor.
But I want to suggest to that the reality is much more subtle, and that whenever we talk about war in the same context as we talk about God we have to be supremely careful not to colour our understandings of the nature of God. You see, contrary to what many extremists think, God does not take sides.
That is not to diminish the sacrifices given to defeat the despicable evil of Nazism or, in our own time the sacrifices that may well be needed in conflicts to come, nor the need for the defeat of an oppressive enemy by warfare when no other means will work. Those who have allowed themselves to become unutterably evil may have put themselves beyond any kind of diplomatic solution. However, it is a very small and dangerous step to go from seeing the evils of the other side to declaring that our side must therefore be on the side of right, to then declaring that God must be on our side because ours is a righteous cause. Once we do that we walk a dangerous tightrope where we risk become blinded to our own failings and a whole raft of evil can follow because we think we can justify it in God's name.
God does indeed go to war sometimes in the Bible. When things have become persistently unjust, when children are being killed, and when a system has collapsed into evil and oppression, God will go to war. But when we go to war, can we, should we, ever claim that God is on our side? And if we can't claim that, should we actually fight?
Now the reality of World War 2 was not actually one of us declaring God was on our side and Nazi Germany also claiming God to be on their side. If anything the ideology of the Nazi leadership leaned heavily towards the occult, and was moving towards destroying the church with over 6,000 clergy being either imprisoned or executed during the war. But amongst the Allies there was often a firm belief that God was on our side. I want to suggest that the truth is much more subtle than that, and indeed that, if we don't see the role that God really plays in conflict, we run the risk of all kinds of evil.
To show you what I mean we need to look at our first reading, from Joshua 5. Let me give you a little context to the narrative. The story comes at a turning point in the history of Israel. For forty years the people have been living in the desert to give sufficient time for a disobedient generation, the ones who left the slavery of Egypt, to die off. They had got in the way of God's plans and God could not accomplish his ends with them in place. In his mercy he simply delayed his plans to let them die off naturally rather than take more drastic action. So what were God's plans? To drive the Canaanites out of their land and give it to Israel. Why? Because of the great evils that the Canaanites were committing, which included, amongst other things, child sacrifices. The mistreatment of the innocent will always bring God's wrath.
In the place of Moses, now dead with his generation, God appointed Joshua as the new leader of Israel, and God told him that now the time had come to go in and take the promised land by force from the people who lived there. Notice that God was using Israel as his instrument of judgement to take the land away from the Canaanites.
In the reading, the people have just crossed the river Jordan and are preparing to wage war against the ancient city of Jericho. And so, in the lead up to the battle, Joshua goes to spy on the city of Jericho, to get some idea of what they are facing and to plan his attack. But as he approaches the city he walks straight into a man standing before him with a sword in his hand; pretty scary if you're trying to do some secret reconnaissance. The question Joshua asks him, perhaps with one alarmed hand on his own blade, is essentially, 'Are you with us or against us?' The answer that is given is supremely important. The man answers, 'Neither'.
Now who is that man? There are two possible answers. He refers to himself as the commander of the armies of God so he's a spiritual commander, not a human one. I think he is probably the Archangel Michael who is, elsewhere in the Bible, referred to as the one in charge of heaven's army. However it can also be argued that this is a pre-incarnation encounter with Christ. That puts a whole new take on 'Gentle Jesus, meek and mild' doesn't it. Either way, this is someone highly important from heaven, and my whole argument about whose side God is on depends on that one word answer. 'Are you on our side or the enemy's?' 'Neither'. Let's be absolutely clear about this. God has previously told Joshua that he must wage war against the evil people of the land. But even despite that, God is not on his side...
The lesson that Joshua has to learn here, which is the lesson that we have to learn, is that no one can ever claim God to be on their side, and great evils in war have ensued when people have done so because we become immune in our own minds to the way we wage war, such as the complete destruction of cities, of course including their children.
The question has to be completely reframed, and this is the question that we must ask in terms of any conflict, small, large or international: It is not, 'Is God on our side?' The question that must be asked is 'Are we on God's side?' The difference is vitally important. If we think God is on our side then we can justify all kinds of evil in God's name, but if we recognise that God is active in the world, working both to defeat evil and to bring forgiveness, then we have to ask, 'In this course of action, are we on God's side?'
Were the allies an instrument of God in bringing down an evil and oppressive regime hell-bent on world domination? Yes. Was God on our side? No. But I hope we can say that we were on God's side, but I hesitate to say that was always the case. When we think of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki; the unspeakable suffering wrought on families, on non-combatants, we have to ask, could that ever be in the will of God? If we had questioned, 'Are we on God's side?', would we have done what we did?
Can you see how this reframes all sorts of conflicts throughout the world?
God is not on our side. God is not on anyone's side. The question must always be, are we on God's side? Do we have any idea what he wants to accomplish in a situation? Do we even have the humility to ask?
So on this day, as we remember with gratitude the honour and valour of those who gave their lives to ensure the freedom of this nation, and as we look ahead sadly and with regret to conflicts of the future, may we always ask the question, in all things, 'Are we on God's side?' and never 'Is God on our side?'
There will be more to come on this subject in the December issue of the Parish magazine because I want to suggest that when we move from international to personal, we might wish to introduction a different understanding, but you'll have to wait until December for that one.